The names of chronic diseases are rarely on the ‘easy to remember’ list. But a lack of awareness of one of the many diabetes complications is causing Aussies to potentially go blind.
Research commissioned by Macular Disease Foundation Australia (MDFA) revealed that only 29% of Aussies aged 50 to 70 have heard of diabetic retinopathy (DR), while just 26% are aware of diabetic macular oedema (DMO), a complication of DR that threatens the central vision.
Although 82% identified the eyes as a body part that diabetes can affect – higher than feet (74%), kidneys (68%), and even the heart (53%) – the lack of awareness of what these conditions are called means many people who are at risk remain in the dark about these sight-threatening complications.
The research was developed in support of Macula Month this May, an annual awareness campaign urging at-risk Aussies to check their macula. Age-related macular degeneration and diabetic eye disease are the most common conditions that threaten the macula and detailed central vision.
Diabetic retinopathy is the most common diabetic eye disease and the top cause of blindness in Aussies aged 50 to 70, affecting between 300,000 and 400,000 people.
“Diabetic retinopathy claims the eyesight of more working-age Australians than any other eye condition, yet less than 30% of people know its name,” says Dee Hopkins, CEO of MDFA.
“But we do know that early action can save sight. It’s crucial that everyone over the age of 50 - and everyone living with diabetes – has regular eye examinations with their optometrist to detect any changes to the eye early.”
Forty-five year-old Shane (pictured), a father of two and passionate surfer from Byron Bay, is one of the lucky ones. Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes as a teenager, he made no effort to change his lifestyle and nearly lost his big toe from a diabetic ulcer as a result. A friend recommended he get his eyes tested afterwards as a precaution, where he discovered he had diabetic macular oedema and began aggressive treatment to save his sight. Now his eye condition is well controlled, and his glucose levels are now better than they have been in the past ten years.
There are around 1.7 million Australians living with diabetes, a figure expected to hit two million by 2025 leading to a surge in diabetic eye disease.
Everyone with diabetes is at risk of developing diabetic retinopathy, and the longer a person has diabetes, the greater the likelihood of the disease.
Almost everyone with type 1 diabetes and more than 60% of people with type 2 diabetes will develop some form of DR within 20 years of diagnosis. One in three people over the age of 50 with diabetes has diabetic retinopathy.
MDFA Ambassador and 2020 Australian of the Year, Adelaide ophthalmologist Dr James Muecke AM, explains that people with diabetes can take steps to reverse their risk of vision loss.
“Diabetic retinopathy is the only reversible macular condition,” Dr Muecke says. “If you control your diabetes, or if you are able to put your type 2 diabetes into remission, you can turn this blinding disease around. We want people to not only understand the name of the disease, we want everyone to take action to avoid its devastating outcome.”
“This is easily done through regular eye examinations and managing your diabetes. When the disease is picked up early, you can make lifestyle changes and access good treatments that maintain sight and prevent severe vision loss.”
The good news is that more than two thirds of people polled are having regular eye checks.
A YouGov study, conducted online between 18-22 February 2021, showed that 68% of respondents have had an eye examination and/or macula check in the last two years – more than other health checks such as cholesterol (66%), bowel cancer screenings (51%), glucose/diabetes (44%) and skin checks (36%).
This month, MDFA’s annual Macula Month awareness campaign will urge even more Australians to book an eye exam through the Check My Macula tool.
Check My Macula is a short online quiz that reveals your individual risk factors for macular disease – including diabetic eye disease – in less than a minute, then helps you make an appointment with your nearest optometrist, or schedule a reminder to have an eye exam in the future.
“Tens of thousands of Australians have already taken the Check My Macula quiz. One minute. Five questions and you’re done. You can learn about your risk of age-related macular degeneration and diabetic eye disease whether you’re on a phone or computer, sitting on the bus or waiting in a queue,” says Hopkins.